Yellowstone Genealogy Forum


Billings – Canyon Creek & Coulson


Tuesday, October 05, 2004


To understand how Billings came into existence, it is first necessary to examine the property titles in the area, and to understand the development of the region by the early settlers, the travel routes, irrigation ditches, profit potentials for various individuals and the influence exerted by the Northern Pacific Railroad (NPR). There have been many examinations of the reasons and rationale used to create the town, but the Master of Arts thesis created by Waldo Kliewer in 1938 for the University of Washington probably summarizes the development better than any other. To supplement his research, the Forum land files and Walter W. deLacy’s survey notes of 1878, are used to establish additional milestones in the genealogical report. This report is designed to aid other researchers in locating their ancestors and their place in history, and to identify original research texts that can aid in further detailed investigation. Research texts used to support this are:

      History of Yellowstone Valley, J B Hendry & W Fell, undated

      Polk Business Directories, all years

      Billings Gazette, numerous articles through 1939

      Old Timer’s Tales, Leeson, undated

      Memoirs of Joseph MV Cochran (Edited by ID O’Donnell), undated

      Coulson Post, articles through 1882 (Special Date of April 8, 1882 co-join Billings to Coulson)

      US Geological Survey, Bulletin 272, Series F, Geography 47, Washington DC, 1906

      Memoirs of HM Rowley, edited by ID O’Donnell, undated

      NPR Land Department Correspondence submitted to Kliewer, January 27, 1938 (Established Heman Clark as motivator for Billings)

      Century Magazine, September 1882, “The New Northwest Article” by EV Smalley

      Fred H Foster, Mayor quote on Alkali Creek importance, undated

      Dr William Alonzo Allen memoirs, extracted from Billings Gazette, numerous dates

      Bureau of Land Management files,

      Forum Land Management files on Clark’s Fork Bottom (Identify transfers and NPR Land Grants, irrigation, town site plats, and financial transactions-two boxes of research materials)

      WW de Lacy Original Land Survey records, October 17,1878 (Recorded location of “Josephine Tree” – Erroneously recorded resident’s understanding as to what it signified.)

      Henry Davis plat surveys of Clark’s Fork Valley, 1904

      River land ownership family genealogical histories provided by family members and printed in early Post & Gazette files.

      Historic Survey for Riverfront Park, Department of Parks, November 16, 1981 (Limited family histories provided, and identifies the Canyon Creek School land owners in Section 16, prior to being forced off by Congressional Act)

Canyon Creek and Coulson Settlers

(Why was the Packet Riverboat “Josephine” here in 1877?)

Most of the histories of the settlements are contained within the biographies of the people who settled in the valley. In reconstructing the timing it would appear that the two main forces that led families to this area were: 1) the completion of the land surveys (thus opening the land for settlement), and 2) the peace treaties made with the Sioux Nation Indian Tribes after The Custer battle in June, 1876. It was now considered relatively safe to settle in the area. The BLM had established a land office in Bozeman on October 5, 1874 to serve the area Yellowstone Valley, but actual land ownership was limited basically to the local region surrounding Bozeman. In April 1877, the Bozeman Land Office received the plat map for the Yellowstone Valley region (used to establish land ownership sites) from their home office in Washington DC. A rush to settle in the valley started, and by summer of 1878, all of the river land (north side of the Yellowstone River –e.g., non-Indian Land), was claimed. By casual happenstance, Joseph MV Cochran stopped by the land office just after the plat map arrived in April 1877. Cochran had visited the valley area earlier, and had a piece of land already picked out. He filed for ownership of 33+ acres on a piece of land in Section 16 that would later be claimed by the government as “should have belonged to the State of Montana” for school land. Seems that when the state applied for statehood, this section was omitted from the plat as belonging to the state for future schools, and the state was considerably short of the required acreage for school lands. [This was later taken back, but the BLM has unfortunately lost their filing records. Also reclaimed by Congress was Section 36, which contains the site where the “Big Ditch” picks up its water. The Forum posses the records of title transfer.]

There is little reliably reported from actual records of the first year of residency in the valley. Most all of the details come from resident’s memories. Unfortunately, virtually none of the early residents understood, or were even aware of, events that took place before their time. So what they recorded as “truths”, were in fact true to them, but not always true to the real history. Thus, when the written stories of how the valley was settled, their reports were based upon their recollections, and unfortunately not on the prior histories. When the history of the valley settlement was written, based upon these memories, all was presumed as “fact”, or as near to fact as could be expected. Future historians began to “copy” these truisms, and as a result, some minor errors in history for the genealogy of these early settlers were created.  Two significant errors were: 1) the start of Coulson, and 2) stating that the “Josephine” River Boat only reached Riverfront Park as its uppermost travel on the Yellowstone River by WW de Lacy, one of the land surveyors. Timing of when these early settlers arrived is important to understanding how the area was settled before the town of Billings was created. Details of the events leading to the establishment of these two towns are explained in the local resident’s biographies.

There are conflicting reports and stories about the timing of the early settler’s arrival in the future “Yellowstone Valley”. The actual sequence of important events is believed to be that Thomas McGirl arrived first, in mid-May 1877. He and most other settlers arrived in the valley and took up residence, without previously having established plans for land ownership with the BLM land office. McGirl settled on land in the Pryor Creek-Yellowstone River area (east of Huntley on Crow Indian land.  Site was previously called “Baker’s Ground”. Almost immediately it became a significant trading post. There was no telegraph system in place, so the transfer of information was by couriers, trappers, and others. The Coulson Packet Company apparently knew that the Yellowstone River valley areas were opening up for settlers, and sent one of their boats, “Josephine”, commanded by Captain Grant Marsh, into the area loaded with merchandise needed by settlers, and to secure trade. By the time the boat arrived at McGirl’s place at the end of May 1877, he had hides for shipment, obtained from the trappers. Why, or how, Captain Marsh knew about other settlers further upstream may never be known, but he traveled there anyway, arriving on June 7th (a one day journey). [This is where the historians leave the fact, and rely on local area resident’s memories.]

Next on the scene were trappers Clint Dills, and Milton Summers. They had no permanent residence, but lived on the Canyon Creek land owned by Joseph Cochran. History files for these two men have not been located, but since they were trappers, they must have been well known, and might well have been part of the reason that the Josephine continued upriver after leaving McGirl’s place, for the area wasn’t yet settled. [Note: Future researchers incorrectly identified them as being soldiers killed during the army attack on the Nez Perce in September 1877 at Canyon Creek –East of Laurel. As such, the Boothill Cemetery early transcriptions listed them as soldiers.] Already in the Canyon Creek area were Bela Brockway and Edward Forrest, having established homesteads near to the junction of where Canyon Creek empties into the Yellowstone (immediately west of the south Billings Blvd bridge). They and other residents later established a trading post within two months afterwards referred to as “Canyon Creek.” In addition to the stage stop, a Post Office and local Land Office were located there. Bela and Ed must have arrived shortly after May 19th, 1877.[1] Next on the scene was Joseph Cochran. He had picked out his land from the Bozeman Land office immediately after the land plats arrived from Washington, D. C., and arrived to stake his claim in mid May. Apparently the trappers were living on his property at the time. Joseph reported in his biography-interview with ID O’Donnell, that “he wasn’t actually present” when the riverboat “Josephine” first arrived at his property on June 7th, 1877. It isn’t clear as to whether Cochran had staked out his land claim by then or not. However it is believed that he did so, and had put up a tent to live in. He reported that he shared his tent with the two trappers, at least until September 1877, when a small band of six Nez Perce killed the trappers in a surprise attack.

This approximation of the 1877-plat map shows where Brockway, Forrest and Cochran homesteaded. The two roads join together, and pass through Canyon Creek, where a trading post and stage stop was established near to the Ed Forest land. To support the heavy influx of settlers into the local area, the BLM established a local “land office” at the site. This was probably after October 1878. (BLM records for early land filings were not retained.)

In late May 1877 the Josephine River Boat reached Thomas McGirl’s place downstream (at Huntley). It then left on June 7th, and arrived in the Canyon Creek area, tying to a large Cottonwood tree on Cochran’s land. This is the point where further travel upstream would probably require the necessity for using towropes to pull the large boat through the chutes and narrow channels in the riverbed. (This was needed during the 1875 travel upstream as reported by Army Col. Grant.) The captain of the boat, Grant Marsh, probably saw Cochran’s tent, thus establishing a place to stop. The biographies of the early settlers established a sequence of who arrived first, which was different from that expressed in the Yellowstone Valley book. According to Perry McAdow, he was passing through the area when the land surveyors were establishing measurements for a plat map in the early summer of 1876. He found the piece of land he wanted (Section 2 Range 26 E, Township 1 South, Josephine Park area), and in the summer of 1877 he arrived and took possession as a Desert Land Claim. He didn’t pay for the land until five years later. (See Below – Creation of Billings) According to Joseph Cochran, no one resided along the river between his place and McGirl’s at Pryor Creek (Huntley) when he arrived. Hendry’s explanation in The Yellowstone Valley was the McAdow arrived first in the winter of 1876, before Bela Brockway, Joseph Cochran, and Ed Forest. Had this been so, it seem that the riverboat would have stopped at their places, instead of trying to go further upstream. In either case, the boat did stop on Cochran’s land as verified by the de Lacy survey in October 1878, where he identified the coordinates of the tree, which was still standing at the time.  This is the farthest point up-river reached in 1877 by the Josephine, and not the farthest point reached by the same boat on June 7th, 1875. (BLM Yellowstone County Plat maps incorrectly identify the docking positions as being the furthest point that the riverboat traveled upstream.)

By the summer of 1878 the entire river area was settled. All of the land between these settlers along the river banks and north toward the rims was considered worthless, since it was dry, had little grass, and little sagebrush. Without water, it was no good for farming. These early settlers mostly took up small pieces of land, 20-80 acres in size, indicating that many must have arrived at the same time, and they simply split up the land into fair size portions. The exceptions were Perry McAdow and John Alderson. The collection of settlers in the Canyon Creek area became concerned about where the real property boundaries were, so collectively they hired William W de Lacy to survey their particular area, and establish personal boundary lines[2]. The farmers who had placed fence lines around their property upon arrival, such as the Newman families, discovered that their fences overlapped their neighbor’s property. Of interest, is how close the presumed land ownership to the actual survey really was? The land agent at Canyon Creek must have had a hand in the settlement location, but those records have not been located. Settlement in these sections took place in days and weeks, not months and years.

Perry McAdow opened up a store on his property (small tent with supplies), and a saloon soon followed. In September 1877 the trading post was referred to as “Coulson.”[3] The Nez Perce Indians overran this small tent settlement on 13-15 September 1877, and the saloon was destroyed by fire. By this time John Alderson had arrived and claimed a large portion of the land immediately downstream of Perry McAdow. He intended to farm the land, but procrastinated about actually filing until March 1880. He had to go to Bozeman to file, although there was a land agent at Canyon Creek. [The rationale for this action needs to be explained.]  By early September 1877, there were stage lines established, and Canyon Creek was a major stop. The first run from Fort Keogh to Livingston was in place when the Nez Perce attacked the stage stop operated by H. H. Stone and Elliot Rouse. This is also when W. A. Allen had the opportunity to start his dental career.

Since John Alderson’s land lay near the place where the river could be easily crossed, he suggested that Perry McAdow relocate his store (Coulson Stage Stop) there, thus making it more accessible to travelers. By the summer of 1878, the following collection of businesses appeared on the Alderson’s land, Coulson site:

      Two-story hotel, operated by John Alderson

      General Merchandise store, run by Perry McAdow

      Post office run by John Alderson

      Telegraph office

      Several saloons

      Sawmill, operated by Perry McAdow

By moving the sawmill to the Alderson land this greatly increased interest in the town. Of major significance was the relocation of Perry McAdow’s sawmill. Indians (Crows?) were especially interested in watching the saw cut wood. This formed the basis for the name “A-Mun-A-Pus-Ka” given by them for the little town. Translated it means: “Where-They-Saw-Wood.”

Coulson began to grow, as more businesses moved in, and the need to support the local farmers grew in size. In 1899 (October?) it became apparent from verbal exchanges with the NPR representatives that Coulson would be made the “shipping point” for Montana cattle. The railroad wanted to purchase 40 acres of land from John Alderson that adjoined their land (future site of Billings) in Section 33, but since John Alderson demanded more money than what was offered (reported to be about $30,000), the deal was dropped, essentially sealing Coulson’s survival. (See following section for details)

From 1878 until after 1882, Alderson tried to attract and maintain businesses on his property in a place called Coulson. It was simply a collection of businesses until he became serious about the town’s future, thought that he might make a financial windfall from his property, and filed a plat on the land about the same time, as did NPR for their Billings’ site. To confuse historical events relating to the town it is noted that John Alderson hadn’t filed for ownership the land at the time, although he was residing on it. When he first arrived in May 1877, he built a small cabin for his family, and was farming. John Alderson had filed on 160 acres of land north of McAdow’s property, at the Bozeman land office in 1878, about a year after he arrived there (No BLM land records are available to confirm the date.) He left his homestead after filing, for a short spell, probably in early 1880, and upon returning in March 1880 found that Dave Currier, a local area hide trader, had erected a shanty on one corner of his land away from the buildings he had approved for being on his land in the Coulson Town. Dr Allen, a neighbor, and Alderson went to Currier’s shanty to find out what’s going on. Seeing the men approaching Currier came out of the cabin with a six-shooter in hand. He demanded to know why they were there, evidently sensing trouble about his shack on John’s land. Currier ordered the unarmed men to leave. Mrs. Alderson seeing the trouble, got a needle gun, stepped in front of her husband and handed it to him. Currier raised his revolver, Alderson fired, killing him instantly. Alderson was tried for murder, and a jury from Coulson acquitted him.

By 1880 Coulson was probably the busiest town on the Yellowstone River. There were several general stores, hotels, restaurants, saloons and gaming houses. A survey taken by Lt Long in 1880 established the population as 50.  Believing that NPR would use Coulson as a shipping point for Montana livestock, Alderson created a land plat for the town in October 1881. (The I-90 freeway now runs through the center. Map from Yellowstone County Clerk & Recorder’s Office)

The town is centered in the SW of Section 34, and butts up against the City of Billings. McAdow’s sawmill is located on the northwest riverbank about mile south of the ferry, operated by John Schock. (The railroad river crossing is located about 500 feet south of the ferry.)











Creation of Billings

Establishment of a continental railroad across the Dakota Territory and through to the Oregon coast was envisioned in mid 1880. In 1851 a preliminary survey team examined the wilderness land for possible routes, and selected one that would take the railroad across to the Yellowstone River, then south to Pryor Creek (Huntley), where it would cross the river, and proceed to Fort Benton, then on to the Oregon coast. This recommendation apparently formed the basis for the eventual creation of the 1864 Railroad Act, signed by President Lincoln. Not taken into serious account was the fact that the Indians living in the territory really didn’t agree to have the land surveyed, nor did they approve building of a railroad. When NPR undertook to build the line through financing of land given to them in exchange for construction of the telegraph and rail lines, they underestimated the effect that numerous war parties and attacks on white men in the area would have on settlers. People were simply afraid to chance farming in a land where they might be killed at any moment. Even though the railroad received 20 square miles of land for every mile of track laid, finding willing moneylenders soon dwindled, and several restructurings of the company itself took place. Land values plummeted in 1873-1876 when the construction was halted at Bismarck. Open war between the Sioux and the white men left the valley area virtually empty of settlers.

After the Indian Wars with the Sioux Nation were settled in early 1877 the railroad started to lay track at a rapid pace, and well before arriving at the Billings site, NPR was aware that the need for a town would exist in the vicinity of Coulson, although HM Rowley reported that the exact location hadn’t been selected. Heman Clark, the general contractor for NPR at that time and residing in Miles City, created a special interest group to further his and the railroad’s financial future by gaining large returns on investments from sale of NPR land as it passed through the territory. Clark solicited support from TF Oakes (current NPR President), Frederick Billings (Previous NPR President), John B Westbrook (Miles City), and Thomas C Kurtz (from Moorhead, MN). They pooled their resources and established an operating capital of $200,000 and filed for charter ship in Minneapolis as “Minnesota and Montana Land and Improvement Company.” Filing was performed on March 24, 1882. This group conceived of a new method of authorizing land ownership through the use of “scrip”, not to be confused with “script” issued by the government to war veterans. According to an article printed in the Century Magazine, September 1882:

“The creation of a new town on a line of railroad pushing its track out into vacant, treeless spaces of the west, is an interesting process to observe. The speculator, or a company of speculators, look over the ground carefully fifty or a hundred miles in advance of the temporary terminus of the railroad, and hit upon a site which they think has special advantages, and is far enough away from the last town. They make a treaty with the railroad company for a section of land, agreeing perhaps, to share in the prospective profits on the sale of lots. They then “scrip” the adjoining sections of government land, or take it up with desert land claims. The speculator with his pocket stocked with scrip is able to pick out any choice sections not occupied by homesteads or preemption claimants. Having thus obtained a sufficient body of land to operate with the founding of the new town is trumpeted in newspapers and in all the frontier region for hundreds of miles there is a stir of excitement about the coming city. Billings on the Yellowstone is a good example of a town made by this process.”

A contract between NPR and Heman Clark’s Land Development Company on April 1, 1882 provided the firm with 29,394.22 acres or prime land in and around Billings. NPR was paid $113,558.86 for the land. On March 20, 1883 NPR made two conveyances of overlapping odd numbered sections on the Montana Prime Meridian to the Land Company covering the Billings Site (Section 3-1S-26E and Section 33-1N26E). The Land Company then formed a new company within its shell and organized it as the “Billings Townsite Company.” Heman Clark was appointed president and managed the operations associated with the two sections and the sale of lots therein.

The Billings’ townsite was laid out in the fall of 1881 (November), and it was named “Billings” after Frederick Billings, member of the Land Company, at the suggestion of Heman Clark. Rationale for the location of the town has been an area of controversy for many years, and has been generally inferred that the details presented in The History of Yellowstone Valley book established that Alkali Creek, which runs into the Yellowstone River from the northwest played a significant role. It was erroneously claimed that this belief caused the land company to build at the lower end of the valley. Mayor Foster stated:

“The fact that Alkali Creek commands the only practicable northern outlet from the Yellowstone Valley caused Heman Clark and Frederick Billings to locate Billings on its present site rather than at Canyon Creek or Laurel. This insignificant rivulet, daily seen by our people, has built Billings.”

The accepted reason as to why Billings was located where it was is based upon statements made by Henry Ward Rowley, who was the NPR engineer placed in charge of the irrigation construction for the new townsite, which included most of the valley area, and the Heights; regardless of the Section numbers within.

Rowley was employed with the engineering corps of NPR. He came to Montana in 1880, with the railroad crews and headquartered in Custer in 1881, then in Billings in 1882. He was selected by the Land Company to take charge of building an irrigation canal planned by the company during the 1881 time frame. John Issaei (an assistant NPR engineer) was sent to the Billings’ area to lay out the townsite. Rowley maintained that the selection was based entirely on the fact that the two NPR land sections adjacent to the prime meridian cut through the Yellowstone Valley near where NPR wanted to start a town. The alternating townships which had been deeded to the railroad lay side by side across the meridian, instead of cornering as they did elsewhere. It was further stated ‘We will put the town where this line crosses the railroad track, and get adjoining sections.’ ”

The Land Company contracted for all the alternate land sections (odd numbered) on each side of the right of way, plus the two used to form the town, and divided the site into streets, avenues and parks. They engraved a map of their planned community, and by April the “Billings Boom” was talked about as far away as St Paul.”

To get people to populate the valley and the town the lots and farmland were heavily advertised back east, with large blocks of the odd sectioned parcels being sold in Chicago and New York. (Forum Abstract files and Century Magazine) The Coulson residents until after April 1882 were not privy to this information, and they had hopes that that the new town planned for the area would actually be Coulson. A New York paper reporter interviewed Heman Clark in which was stated, “He had arranged to form a settlement of not less than a thousand inhabitants in the vicinity of Coulson, and that this village was to become the railroad station for the settlement.” The thousand inhabitants were to hold farms in the valley, sold to them by the Land Company. Additionally he planned to erect seven, eight or nine sawmills, and construct an irrigation ditch 16 miles long to irrigate both the town and the entire Clark’s Fork bottom. He was to start a bank for the convenience of settlers and businessmen in the vicinity, and would purchase bullion from the gold mines. The Coulson Post reporters in April 1, 1882 jumped ahead and stated that NPR planned to make Coulson the shipping point for Montana cattle, build railroads to the mines, engage in stock raising, assist settlers in securing stock, and encourage immigration. The Coulson residents hoped that Billings would extend and include Coulson, since they had made offers to John Alderson to purchase the 40 acres adjoining Section 33.

When Heman Clark arrived onsite in April, 1882 he located three booms for water extraction from the Yellowstone River to be placed into the stream bed ten miles apart, starting at Coulson, (one at Laurel, and one south of Park City) and that at each boom placement a sawmill would be located. He released an order for several million bricks to be used in future construction of a hotel, roundhouse, machine shop and other buildings. On April 14th, the Coulson Post reported that Clark was planning to start construction of the first ditch in June, and that it would be completed within a month. A colony of 450 residents from Ripon, WI were expected to arrive and take up land at the western end of the settlement, and the company’s offer to fence and break their land, build each settler a home and furnish them with either 100 head of sheep or cattle. As a result of the advertising and the rich-irrigated farmland had people coming so rapidly and in such great numbers that by April 22 the company had difficulty satisfying potential buyers. The “BOOM” had started. The holdup in delay for selling the lots within the new city of Billings was the wait for MS Hulme of New York, agent for the company, who was to act as interim banker until the local bank in Billings was completed. During the waiting person, Clark sold 400 lots, of which 140 went to people in Miles City. Clark assured prospective buyers that the choice lots have been reserved for those who promised to build first, and not promised to friends as favors. Fear arose for a while during this time when the buyers thought that the good lots were all taken, and that they would have to settle for inferior locations. This proved to be false. On April 16, Hulme arrived and he immediately sold lots to the anxious residents, who had chosen the lot they wanted, and were only waiting for the agent to arrive to close the deal. The prospective buyer prior to the sale placed construction materials on the lots, and everything indicated that construction would start soon as the deed was granted. All seemed to want land on the avenues running parallel with the track (Montana and Minnesota Avenue). Local latecomers could not be accommodated with first choice, even though lots appeared to be empty, and charges of favoritism and unfairness exploded. Residents got word that large blocks of land were indeed sold to people back east before Hulme arrived. On April 22 the Coulson Post reported:

“Our efforts have brought people from all sections of Montana and adjacent territories to this point, with means for investing, prepared to build substantial stores, and to take up their lives with us, but we regret to have to record the very serious discontent and indignation against the management in the sale of large blocks to people in St Paul and other eastern points. These sales have been made for speculative purposes and will seriously retard the immediate success of the town. Col RW Newport in charge of the land department in St Paul is held largely responsible for the present condition of things and it is believed that he has his own interests more at stake than either that of the railroad of the people of this section, so we are still in hopes that Col Newport’s action will not be approved by his immediate superiors and that the same arrangements may be made that will permit the people of this section to build. Many people have left this vicinity disgusted but we hope for better things when this is brought to the attention of people able to correct the evil.”

However, with few exceptions, suitable lots were available for all interested in building. Although guilty of selling lots to speculators, the Billings Townsite Company actually had the interest of Billings at heart as evidenced by their own investments. By April 15, about $110,000 worth of lots had been sold, and in one day, at month end, they sold 2,000 lots, worth about $50,000. Average price for a lot was $100, with business lots going for $500. Local dwelling lots, at edges of the town went for about $25. This selling frenzy continued through into summer, giving rise to the name “Magic City”, and it was slated to be the future metropolis of Yellowstone Valley. Local citizens were kept amused by the numerous and rapid change of speculative lots resulting in huge profits for the early investors. It was reported that the eastern investors knew no more about the locality than “about the Congo and few of them could have put their finger on a spot upon a map within a hundred miles of Billings.” When these out of towner’s arrived, it usually was with a well-wrinkled and perhaps dirty plat of the town, and they started to seek out their lot. If the lot was satisfactory, and located in the business section they immediately built a store and opened for business. Land was not always as presented on a piece of paper. TC Armitage, chief clerk for Col JB Clough, division engineer in charge of construction for the NPR between Glendive and Livingston, purchased several lots in the future Billings, believing he had the inside track, and expected to get rich with his speculation. After NPR completed construction of the Headquarters’ building, Armitage moved to the new site along with the other NPR engineers and clerks. He viewed with dismay the sections of land on which Billings was supposed to be built as he gazed upon the desolate scene. He sought out his purchases and discovered that the land plat he was privy to, didn’t identify the characteristics of the land, and his guess as to where the Headquarters’ building was located (Block 109 – site of the Northern Hotel) was poor, and on the edge of an alkali flat. He discovered that he needed a boat to locate the corners of his lots, and much of the land was in a marsh. Complaining to Heman Clark that these lots might be good for a “duck pond”, but nothing else, Clark replied, “Oh, that will all be filled in some day. Look at Chicago. Some of the most valuable land there today was in the beginning no better than this.” But nevertheless Clark agreed to exchange lots with him for a better location. Land to the west and north of the building was rich pastureland; closer to the river the grass was tall enough to make hay. The whole expanse of the prairie was treeless, excepting for a line of cottonwoods and willows on the riverbanks. Choice residential lots in 1882 were on the flats at the south edge of the city.

SP Panton, member of the task force that laid out the townsite, stated that the first building, a cook shanty, was erected in August 1881, and was built to accommodate the NPR survey crews.  It was a temporary building, and by the spring of 1882, it had vanished. The NPR Headquarters’ building was completed on May 1, 1882, followed by a store built on the corner of Minnesota Avenue and 29th Street by the Billings Townsite Company, for the exclusive use by railroad contractors. The third building was a residence built for FB Kennard, also a railroad representative. Soon the area was dotted with tents and shacks, with more tents that shacks, thus the name “Tent Town.” Seeing businesses flourish in the new town, the Coulson Post vacated Coulson and moved on April 15th to Billings, and it was renamed the Billings Post on June 3rd. Matheson purchased the paper, thus starting the beginning of the Billings Gazette. With all the activity going on during the early spring of 1882, (before actual identification of where the new town was to be located) the Post reported that Coulson was to be left out in the cold while the railroad went either to Canyon Creek (where the local land office was located), or to the new townsite, called Billings. They still didn’t know. On April 8, 1882 the Coulson residents were optimistic, thinking that the two towns would join one another (They lay essentially parallel to with each other, only yards apart). When the boom in Billings became evident to the Coulson residents, they gave up. Vacated or relocated to Billings were: a brewery, hotel, three general stores, five saloons, and thirty other buildings. On August 4, 1882 the Billings Post Office opened, and two weeks later the Coulson one was closed.

Concurrently with this Land Development Company’s marketing efforts to sell land, other speculators were not to be left out in the cold. They apparently created a marketing plan of their own, which consisted of acquiring as much of the even sectioned land in the area adjoining the Land Development land as practical. This was accomplished by locking in future Homesteads from out-of-state farmers. These homesteads were in “name only.”


Billings City Limits Population (Reference)


1880 – 50  [Military Census and Federal Census for Coulson area]


1882 – 58 Registered voters


1 May 1882 – Construction of Billings Commences


Mid May 1882 – 50 buildings built; over 2,000 lots were sold in two weeks


October 1882 – 250 residences, 15 businesses, and 10 under construction


1890 –     836 (Federal Census)


1900 –   6,212 (Federal Census Estimate)

   3,221 (Federal Census –Rand McNally Publication)


1910 -  10,031 (Federal Census)


1912 – 16,050 (Calculated by City)


1914 -  13,020 (Rand McNally estimate)


1919 – 20,000 (Polk Business Journal)


1930 – 16,332 (Federal Census)


1940 – 25,084 (Federal Census Estimate)

   23,261 (Federal Actual Census)


1950 – 43,000 (City Estimate)

          -  52,851 (Federal Census)


1960 – 52,259 (Federal Census)


1969 – 81,000 (City Estimate)


1980 – 100,000 (Urban District - City Estimate)


1990 – 81,151 (Federal Census)


1997 – 125,771 (City Estimates including un-incorporated area)


2000 – 89,847 (Federal Census. Yellowstone County total129,352)

















Return to Yellowstone County

[1] According to “The History of Yellowstone Valley”, it is claimed that Perry McAdow was the first settler in the area, arriving during the winter of 1876-1877. The other settlers then followed him.

[2] Historic Survey for Riverfront Park, Department of Parks, November 16, 1981

[3] When the land survey crew went through the area in 1876, they established the vertical guideline for the end of the township collections as “Coulson.” This was at the prime meridian and Section 36 in township 1N, Range 26E. Perry Mc Adow and John Alderson’s land was the most easterly land available to settlement, and this grid was close to their land.  The grid and the trading post (and future town) were credited with the name from the Coulson Packet Company. Probably in honor for all the achievements earned through their support to the War Department, and many travels on the Yellowstone River.